Officials offer tips for protecting your home from wildfire

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This is turning out to be a record fire year in California. More than 2,000 fires have burned more than a million acres of brush and forest. They've also destroyed more than 150 homes, and we still have two of the worst fire months, October and November, left on the calendar. What can you do to protect your home and family? KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde takes us out to the hills of Malibu for some tips.

John Todd: As we walk further, I can point out a couple of vulnerabilities of the structure...

Kitty Felde: Captain John Todd of the L.A. County Fire Department is giving the Malibu home of Will O'Leary the once over.

Todd: ... you've got something vulnerable. And right here, you've got some Italian Cypress that I wouldn't want under my eaves. These are very vulnerable to catching embers, and once one of these, it's almost like a vertical pile of gasoline here, it's gonna take fire right up into the eaves and make the house vulnerable.

Felde: Will O'Leary's home escaped last November's Malibu fire. Two dozen of his neighbors weren't so lucky. Their homes burned. And if you look behind O'Leary's house, you can see wooden skeletons of those homes being rebuilt on the barren hillside. But Will O'Leary wasn't just lucky. He was also prepared. It wasn't easy. O'Leary says there was a lot of work to do.

Will O'Leary: The gravel driveway was essentially asphalt, and then everything around it was either mud or very, very high brush. If you turn your back, ma'am, going down the canyon, and as you see when we walk around, it was basically a lot of weeds and a lot of brush.

Felde: Clearing the brush, replacing the landscape, and switching the driveway from asphalt to gravel cost O'Leary $60,000. That's a lot of money, but rebuilding a hillside home in Malibu costs a lot more. Besides, O'Leary had to do something if he wanted to insure his house. When he bought it two years ago, insurance agent Bart Baker told him he couldn't get coverage.

Bart Baker: The home wasn't eligible for standard insurance carriers, because there wasn't enough brush clearance.

Felde: L.A. County requires 200 feet of brush clearance around a home. So does Farmers Insurance.

Felde: How often do you have to go and have that conversation with homeowners when they come to you for the first time?
Baker: Quite a bit, especially with people who are new to the area. I think people that have lived in Malibu for a while and are aware of the brush fires tend to stay on top of it, but a new homeowner, and especially in a new home, a lot of the times, there's a lot of deferred maintenance, and that needs to be taken care of as fast as possible.

Felde: So Will O'Leary got to work. Clearing the brush was a good first step, but Fire Captain John Todd says putting in the gravel driveway was just as important. He says the old asphalt driveway did nothing to make the O'Leary property fire resistant.

Todd: Anytime you have a hard surface, a surface that doesn't allow infiltration of water or moisture, you have runoff. And runoff creates erosion. And so a driveway such as this allows the rainfall that's gonna come in buckets at some times of the year to percolate down into the soil, to help his plants and his lawn and the surrounding vegetation remain healthy, and also keeps a lot of the water on site.

Felde: State Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner says there's also work to be done inside the house to prepare for fire season. Number one: update your insurance. Let your agent know if you've remodeled your home, or if you've bought something new and expensive. Two: walk through your house and make an inventory of everything you own.

Steve Poizner: Use a digital camera or a video recorder. Of course, keep a copy of this inventory offsite. But having this inventory done in place, in advance, can make a world of difference to get completely reimbursed by the insurance companies.

Step 3 is to maintain a home emergency kit, of food and supplies. These home emergency kits have been real lifesavers for others in similar situations. And finally, create an action plan for your family.

Felde: The Department of Insurance has a free Home Inventory Guide at their website, insurance.ca.gov. But Commissioner Steve Poizner says don't delay.

Poizner: Unfortunately, in California, your house can burn down in a blink of an eye, because of wildfires in this state.

Felde: Last year, 2,100 homes burnt to the ground in California wildfires.